.Future Reflections                                                                                         Winter/Spring 2005

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Ways to Increase Independence
Tips from a Preschool O&M Instructor.

by Sandra Stirnweis

Editor's Note: Ms. Stirnweis is an orientation and mobility specialist who has provided instruction to preschoolers since 1986. She works at the Foundation for Blind Children (FBC) in Phoenix, Arizona. The FBC was founded in 1952 by parents and, according to Stirnweis, "continues to be driven by parent and family input." Stirnweis has presented at a variety of conferences locally, nationally, and internationally. She can be contacted at <[email protected]>.

Use concrete directional language. Most people communicate through gestures and non-descript directional phrases such as "over there." You need to communicate with words the parts that others leave out because they assume it can be seen. For example, "As you go down the hallway, the drinking fountain is on the right, just past the second door."

Be descriptive. The more your child knows about the world, the more prepared, comfortable, and self-confident he will be. Talk about it. Describe the items located in the aisle you are shopping in. Tell them how the neighbors have decorated their homes for a particular holiday. Explain what people are wearing or how their hair is styled. Put names to the things you feel, touch, and smell. Make it a part of the "down-time" conversation in the same way you would people watch. For example, when you are in a fast food restaurant talk about the décor or what the latest fashions are while you're eating.

Show them the world is not one-dimensional. Whatever objects you have in your home, the child will think everyone has the same ones. Go to the local department or hardware store and explore the various kinds of stoves and refrigerators, or sinks and toilets. Go for a walk in the neighborhood and explore the different kinds of mailboxes, fences, walls, trees, and bushes.

Don't be too structured. Although organization is very important, in order to get along in life you have to be able to go with the flow from time to time. Vary the daily routine occasionally; do things on the spur of the moment, or change your plans. These simple things will help your child develop flexibility, be less egocentric, and become a better problem solver.

Be comfortable with the tools of the trade. Your child may have various tools (cane, magnifiers, absorptive lenses, etc.) to make them more effective and safe travelers. However, when they use those tools there is no mistaking to the general public that they have a vision problem. Do not let your own discomfort get in the way of your child's desire for, and comfort in, using these tools. Ask to borrow an old cane and walk the streets with it; try to locate a street sign with the monocular. You will not only increase your  own comfort level but you will also have a better understanding of how the tools work and why your child uses them. If this continues to be difficult for you, talk to a counselor or a support group.

Attend lessons. You will not know what skills your child has, or what techniques he uses to travel, unless you are a part of the process. If it's not possible to attend lessons because of scheduling, ask for the lessons to be videotaped and set up a time when you can watch them with the instructor so she can explain to you what your child is doing. The more you know, the more comfortable you'll be.

Independence is not isolation. Being independent means being in control. When your child is independent, she will be able to decide what she can do for herself and what she needs help with. In the home, have her be a helper around the house. Share with her things that happened in your day when you needed help. Use peers and your own childhood as a guide for the types of things your child should be doing independently. Praise her when she learns a new skill and allow her the opportunity to use it on a regular basis. Mobility isn't just for lessons; it's for every day.

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